Cycling in '93: Hi-Tech Technology Trickles Down

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in City Sports, November 1992

This is not a partisan plug here for our election month issue, but convincing proof has recently come to light that the oft-touted GOP trickle-down theory of economics is legit. Well, at least a variation of that theme is legit when it comes to bicycles and the price we have to pay to put our hands on the hi-technology that all the pros are paid to use (or at least to endorse). Of course, for those who still insist on paying outrageous sums for the latest imports from the planet Technoid, that continues to be an option, but more on that later.

Remember when front suspension went mainstream practically overnight two years ago? In the blink of an eye we went from needing skill and finesse honed over many years of practice to ride at warp speed, to only needing the bucks to bolt-on a shock fork in order to make the dreaded Mammoth Kamikaze Downhill look like I-5 (well, sort of). The price then was a good $300, plus the mountain bike, which was at least another $700 for something that wouldn't be laughed at at the next neon-fest-cum-group-trail-ride.

Simply put, that was then and this is now. Where $1000 was the minimum admission price to suspension land, in '93 a hi-tech ATB can be had for, say, half of that. WOW! (One can still pay more than that sum for just a suspension fork, but five hundred or so actually will buy decent shock forks with an ATB attached - and one that is also not laugh-at-able). Consider the Trek 850 at only $529, for example. It includes the requisite shock fork (a spring and elastomer design called the SR DuoTrack) with a host of great features like a butted chromoly frame with an oversize headset, gel saddle, Trek-designed super-light bars, stem, and grips, plus all the buzzwords (and the features they imply) from Shimano: "RapidFire+ Dual SIS" shifters mated to "HyperDrive" chainrings and "HyperGlide" cassette cogs (for front and rear indexed shifting so good that it's almost telepathic), plus Shimano's latest brake system, known as "M-System" for its ability to work superbly under multi-conditions. On top of that, the 850 has great tyres and rims, plus the brake and derailleur cables routed over the top tube to keep them clear of mud and slime (just like European cyclocross racers have them)! That's quite a wish list for any cyclist, and to obtain it for just slightly over five bills is nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps we can actually thank the current economic situation for forcing the bike manufacturers to offer us far more bang for our carefully spent bucks! Maybe bad economic policy isn't so bad after all?

But I digress. Other steals are to be had in '93. First dual-control shifting and braking was available only to the pros, then only in Shimano's top of the line Dura Ace group, then last year it came down the line one notch to the Ultegra group. In '93 this shift and brake from the bars system can be found in the 105 group, putting this formerly-pros-only system on road bikes in the $1000 and up range (depending on the bike's frame material, etc). Of course, the 105 Dual Control also comes with an eight-speed cassette hub, proving that the industry really can coerce us cyclists to bend to its whims. But is it a good thing that this new gear standardization is now increasingly across the board and affordable? (You six- and seven-speed freewheel users had better stock up on parts now!) And not only can our hands interact with our bike in a hi-tech way for less money in '93, so can our feet. Shimano, Specialized, and others are offering SPD-compatible shoes for road, trail, and in-between, for around $50. Versions of the SPD pedals are also coming down in price, and Suntour (the would-be-Davie to Shimano the Goliath) has put out their own version of the clipless pedal and shoe system that can actually be walked in like a human and not like a duck. Smartly, Suntour's own special cleat will fit in any of the myriad shoes designed for Shimano's SPD cleat. And by the way, Suntour's pedals come in at about half the weight of the Goliath's!

To put all this hi-tech, low-cost wonderment into perspective, as well as to hopefully (wishfully) show us what may be actually affordable in just a few years, consider the opposite end of the spectrum: Merlin Metalworks, the titanium bicycle leader, has put their new Extralight frameset into full production. Over 1200 have already been ordered as you read this, and Merlin promises to meet all present and future orders. So what's all the fuss about? How does a double-butted titanium frameset sound? It's no surprise that Merlin is the first manufacturer to figure out how to do incorporate this lightening and strengthening process to the wonder metal. Two other non-surprises include the resultant low weight (2.68 lbs for a 56 cm frame-wow!) and the stratospheric price tag ($2495 for the frame only-gulp!).

The complete bike set up with top of the line Shimano or Campy just barely slides above the 18 pound barrier (and brings the total price up to $4000 plus ), and the incorporation of the now prolific titanium replacement bolt and part kits brings the weight down to 16 pounds or less (and adds anywhere from $300 to $500 to the bike, but what the heck, you've already spend $4000 already anyway, right?).

So maybe a full-scale recession/depression is just what the biking gods ordered if we want to buy a full titanium 16 pound road bike for $529 within three years, right? Wanna chance it?